How to revive a movie star’s flagging career? Take up guns, obviously. Following in the time-honored tradition of “Taken,” “John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde” and “Death Wish,” Jennifer Garner arms up in the vigilante mom action thriller “Peppermint.” That’s both literally and figuratively, as Garner sports some seriously sinewy shoulders; her guns come in both the semi-automatic and bicep variety.
But while it’s fun to watch Garner return to her action roots, the brute force haymaker that is “Peppermint” is a far cry from the sophisticated thrills of “Alias.” Directed by “Taken” helmer Pierre Morel and written by “London Has Fallen” screenwriter Chad St. John, what distinguishes “Peppermint” from every other vigilante shoot-em-up is that this time, our hero is a mom. Motherhood defines who she is and what she does, which is both her strength and her weakness, and often, it’s somewhat limiting. But just because the vigilante happens to be America’s PTA mom, Garner doesn’t make the wanton displays of unchecked violence any less icky.
Garner is Riley North, a lower-middle-class Los Angeles bank teller with a family struggling to make ends meet. Her husband, Chris (Jeff Hephner), a mechanic, entertains the idea of driving the getaway vehicle in the robbery of a powerful drug dealer, Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), which earns a hit on his name. Chris and their daughter, Carly (Cailey Fleming), are gunned down in front of Riley, at a Christmas carnival no less. When the thugs walk, thanks to a corrupt judge and lawyer, she disappears, only to pop up five years later. Those who wronged her start turning up dead too.
In “Peppermint,” Riley takes up the tools of the oppressors to exact her revenge, methodically stalking everyone who denied her justice while working her way to Garcia. She brutalizes men for their behavior, and there is a frisson of feminine rage that electrifies the otherwise dour proceedings. But is it empowering? Hardly. There is some small satisfaction in watching her torture the judge, a representative of state institutions who failed her family (and likely many others). But you mostly wonder, why stoop to their level?
The trailer for “Peppermint” garnered rightful criticism for what looked to be distressingly problematic representations of Latinos as drug-dealing, face-tatted thugs stalking white families, and that’s unfortunately what the film delivers. “Peppermint” does exist in a realistically diverse Los Angeles, but it relies on tired, xenophobic gang stereotypes as fodder for Riley’s deadly maternal rage. She eradicates crime on Skid Row while defending homeless kids and threatens an alcoholic man into cleaning up his act for his son, but that reverence for human life is not extended to any of the men she shoots at point-blank range with large-caliber weapons. Hollywood made some important strides in representation this year, but in that regard, “Peppermint” feels like a relic from another era.
The issue is that Riley doesn’t think big enough. The low-level gangsters aren’t her enemy. Her true enemy is a system of income inequality driven by hyper-capitalism and the myth of the achievable American dream that would push her husband to even consider committing a robbery. She gets a small bit of comeuppance at the 1 percenters when she tortures a snobby rich mom who used to torment her, but that’s not even her real nemesis. Why doesn’t Riley go after the bank that overworked and underpaid her? Unfortunately, Riley, and by extension, “Peppermint” just doesn’t get it.
Rated: R, for strong violence and language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 7, in general release